Very recently I found myself adrift, a ghost untethered from the world. I had lost my phone. I didn’t have my watch either—and so, having nothing but time, I went for a walk. It was cold, and my breath fogged in the air. There were birds out, and there were people, but I was consumed with thoughts of my phone. What was it about losing it that had bothered me so intensely, I wondered. This wasn’t the first time I’d lost something important. I’d been robbed, mugged, and burglarized before. Once, I had stolen from my car a collection of three years worth of notebooks and research equipment; another time a wallet. Here and there I have misplaced watches innumerable. But this hurt differently.
Our relationship with the majority of our possessions is generally defined in terms of either the base utility of the thing, or of the sentimental value that the thing represents. In the former case, the loss of function creates an impediment, a physical and frustrating inconvenience in our day-to-day lives. I need my car! I need my bicycle, my microwave and pots and pans. The son of a bitch who went rummaging through my car and made off with them owes me. For the latter class, the thing itself—the sweater or watch or book—is replaceable. However, the affective information associated with these objects, the real value we derive from them, is not inscribed into the thing itself. Instead, it is contained in our vault of memory, where we may think back to the time we received such a sweet gift, remembering our kind friends. Most things contain elements of each, as mundane purchases in our lives take on special meanings over time, and practical gifts become use-worn. But in any case, when considering our possessions, we usually conceptualize them as existing on an axis that spans the practical to the sentimental.
What, then, is the smartphone? Obviously, it overflows with practical uses—phone calls, calculators, guitar tuners, pedometers, etc.—but a greater significance lies under the glass surface. A phone is a canvas whereupon a mediated version of our life is recorded in fine-grained detail. Automated systems enmesh our physical lives with the digital sphere, driven by our willing and active process of self-curation, the development of a record. In our million texts, thousands of pictures, dozens of social media accounts, we continuously make active decisions to inscribe our innermost personality, our most sensitive relationships, into these devices–in a way that goes beyond even the private reflections in a journal or diary. How often do we re-read texts from a friend or loved one? How often do we look back at old photos in old places, collating and arranging them, or delve into the chaos of social media to suss out how a friend is really doing? We become the archivists of our own lives in real time. Onto what other object can we inscribe this depth of meaning?
Perhaps the smartphone’s outsized presence in our lives goes beyond mere inscription to take on an even greater emotional heft. We have, accessible through our phones, a conduit connecting us to virtually every piece of publicly available information. The phone becomes an extension of ourselves, creating connections between previously disconnected realms of information. We digitize components of the real and informational worlds—bus schedules, bills, bank accounts, cameras, etc.—and mediate our relationships to them through the all-encompassing device.
And then, suddenly, this digital organ can be excised. Wailing and gnashing of teeth. Confusion and panic. I distracted myself for long enough, but every moment I spent idle, my hands turned over as my nerves and muscles manifested a phantom phone, the missing thing’s embodied representation. I looked towards wall sockets with a wild-eyed hope that I would see it charging, its status light blinking up at me dumbly. I would ask questions I couldn’t answer, and, jarringly, I now could not search for the answers that very instant. I went for a walk to try to imagine what this new phone-less life would be like. Slowly the panic declined, and I gave into the sense of lacking, embracing the absence. I would get a new phone. I would get a new one, just like the old one, and I would turn this new phone, piece by piece, back into the old. It wouldn’t be so bad.
Fortunately, due to much patient hunting, the help of the Hyatt security guards, and the risk-averse disposition of the thief who had made off with my phone in the first place, I was able to find where he’d left it after I had locked it up remotely from my laptop. I was home. I was made whole. I set all things into their right place.
Life doesn’t have to be like this. I should not be this worried about this tiny, expensive, infuriating glass and aluminum brick. I think about a quote from a Pictures for Sad Children strip: “Have I told you how nerds destroy the world? […] It has never mattered how thin a computer is.” Why am I trapped in a non-negotiable subscription contract that serves up endless reincarnations of the same basic phone, accommodating and re-accommodating its digital whims, its myriad glitches, its infinite failings? Or, rather, how can such a frustrating device be home to such fantastically useful things? It is by design.
There is a finite-but-massive set of technological possibility that expands well beyond the configurations on offer in our world. The specific incarnation of tech that we coexist with, from the physical form it takes to the ways in which we interact with it, has been created with specific goals in mind. Our well-being is not one of those goals. Our comfort is, perhaps, but in a secondary sense—being comfortable with our role as reliable consumers. To ask how we got here, the social and economic forces that produced this, is an important question. The developmental path of the technology that populates our lives intersects with western overconsumption, the history of the tech industry, and the toolmarks of capitalist society indelibly imprinted upon it. ♦
Michael Malloy is a student teacher, ecological researcher, and socialist from California’s Central Valley. He loses his phone very often, but always finds it again.